Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
EXCURSUS C: BELSHAZZAR (Daniel 5).
Before any opinion can be pronounced upon the identification of this king with other known kings, the following questions require an answer. In Daniel 5:11, Are the words to be taken literally, and explained to mean that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s own son? In Daniel 5:13, Does Belshazzar claim Nebuchadnezzar to be his father? (Comp. Daniel 5:18; Daniel 5:22.) And lastly, Is it stated in Daniel 5:30 that the Chaldean Empire passed over into the hands of the Medes and Persians? or is it only implied that an insurrection occurred in the town where the events recorded in Daniel 5 occurred, and that after the murder of Belshazzar a Median prince, called Darius, was made king in his stead?
Scripture affords us very little assistance in answering any of the above questions. The only fact which we know from the Bible about Belshazzar is that he reigned at least three years. This appears from the headings of Daniel 7, 8.
If we adhere to the literal sense of the words (Daniel 5:11), it follows that Belshazzar was the son and immediate successor of Nebuchadnezzar. But when we come to examine what is known from other sources about the posterity of Nebuchadnezzar, we find no such name as Belshazzar given to his immediate successor. Evil Merodach came to the throne upon the death of his father (Jeremiah 52:31); but the fact that he had a brother named Belshazzar rests on no other authority than the interpretation which Eusebius gave of the story in Daniel. Herodotus knows nothing of Belshazzar or of Nebuchadnezzar. He mentions only two Babylonian princes, both of whom were named Labynetus (probably Nabonidus). One of these was the husband of Nitocris, and erected some of the most stately buildings in Babylon; the other was a son of hers, in whose reign Cyrus took Babylon.
The fragments of Berosus and Abydenus, and the Canon of Ptolemy, confirm the Scriptural account, according to which Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by Evil Merodach. They add that after a “lawless and lustful reign,” Evil Merodach was murdered in a con. spiracy led by Neriglissar. Neriglissar reigned four years, and was succeeded by his son Laborosoarchod, who was soon murdered. Then Nabonidus, one of the conspirators, usurped the throne, which he held for eighteen years, when, upon the assault of Babvlon by Cyrus, he was taken prisoner at Borsippa, where he had fled for safety. It seems impossible to identify Belshazzar with any of these. If he was the same as Evil Merodach, then Darius the Mede and Neriglissar must have been the same person, which is impossible. Similar difficulties prevent us from identifying him with Laborosoarchod, so that the ancient fragments do not help us to arrive at any conclusion.
Babylonian inscriptions, however, speak of a certain Bel-sar-usur as the son of Nabonidus. An inscription (Records of the Past, vol. v., p. 147) concludes with a prayer of Nabonidus, praying the moon to preserve “his eldest son, the offspring of his body, Bel-sar-usur.” Thus the existence of Belshazzar is unquestionable, though no inscription hitherto discovered speaks of him as king. However, the name of the last king of Babylon was Maruduk-sarra-usur, which is not unlike Belshazzar.
Still more recent discoveries have been made, and in the inscription of Cyrus we find that he mentions his taking Babylon without bloodshed, and states that Nabonidus was taken prisoner. He also mentions that the king’s son—probably Belshazzar—was at Accad, “with his great men and soldiers,” in the same year as the capture of Babylon, and that the men of Accad raised a revolt. Farther on in the inscription, which is much mutilated, a statement is made, “and the king died. From the seventh of the month Adar unto the third day of the month Nisan there was weeping in Accad.” Now, according to the last mention made of Nabonidus in this inscription, he was taken bound to Babylon. It is highly probable, therefore, that the king who died at Accad was the “king’s son” mentioned in an earlier part of the inscription. May it not be conjectured that this was Belshazzar, and that the scene described in Daniel 5 occurred at Accad, and not at Babylon? Further discoveries may throw light upon this point.
Ancient opinions about Belshazzar are various. Ephraim Syrus, the earliest writer on Daniel whose commentary has come down to us complete, states that he was son of Nebuchadnezzar, and wisely refrains from further attempts at identification. St. Jerome, a little later, identifies him with Laborosoarchod, cautioning the reader against supposing that he was son of Nebuchadnezzar. Theodoret, adhering to the literal sense of Daniel, supposes him to have been the younger brother of Evil Merodach. The opinion of St. Jerome is supported by Havernick, Hengstenberg, and Keil; Kranichfeld, Zöckler, and Zündel believe in the identity of Belshazzar and Evil Merodach; Dr. Pusey, Delitzsch, Schrader, and the two most recent of English commentators, identify him with his father, Nabonidus, or assume that he was appointed co-regent with his father.
(1) Belshazzar.—On this king see Excursus C. As he was the son of Nabonidus, a space of about thirty years must have elapsed since the event recorded in the last chapter. The Babylonian empire survived the death of Nebuchadnezzar only twenty-five years.
A thousand.—There is nothing unreasonable in the number of the guests; in fact, the LXX. have doubled the number. (See Esther 1:3-4.)
Before the thousand.—The king appears to have had a special table reserved for himself apart from the guests. For this custom comp. Jeremiah 52:33.
Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.(2) Whiles he tasted—i.e., while he was enjoying the wine. The sacred vessels were brought out of the temple of Merodach, and profaned in this manner for the purpose of defying Jehovah. But it may be reasonably asked, What led him to think of Jehovah in the midst of the revelry? It may have been that some drunken fancy seized him. It may have been that he had been warned that the prophets of Jehovah had foretold the overthrow of Babylon by Cyrus, whose armies were now in the neighbourhood. Whatever the true explanation may be, there can be no doubt, from Daniel’s language (Daniel 5:23), and from the way in which Belshazzar’s gods are mentioned (Daniel 5:4), that the whole act was one of defiance of Jehovah.
In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.(5) In the same hour—i.e., suddenly and unexpectedly. (Comp. Daniel 3:6.) Observe that it was only a portion of the hand that the king saw (comp. Daniel 5:24), and that we are not told whether the guests saw the hand or not. That the writing was visible to all is plain from Daniel 5:8. We remark here, as in other supernatural manifestations recorded in Scripture, that a portion only has been witnessed by many, while the whole has been seen only by one or by a few. (Comp. John 12:28-29; Acts 9:7.)
Candlestick.—This, of course, would make both the hand and the writing more distinctly visible to the king.
Plaister.—This was invariably used in the inner chamber of the Assyrian and Babylonian palaces. (See Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, p. 529.)
Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.(6) The king’s countenance was changed.—The effect of the vision on the king changes his whole expression to that of alarm instead of drunken mirth.
The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.(7) The astrologers.—It is worthy of notice that on this occasion the magicians (the chartummim) do not appear. We must either suppose that they are included under the general term “Chaldeans,” or that the king in his terror forgot to summon them. The “wise men” spoken of (Daniel 5:8) were the body over which Daniel was president—a post which it appears. from Daniel 8:27, he held at this time. It is needless to discuss why Daniel did not come in at first.
The third ruler.—See Excursus C. Those who adopt another view of Belshazzar maintain that a triumvirate existed at this time similar to that in the days of Darius the Mede (Daniel 6:2), and that the king promises to raise to the rank of “triumvir” the person who could interpret the vision successfully. It may be noticed that the form of the ordinal “third,” both here and in Daniel 5:16; Daniel 5:29, is very peculiar, and that in the last two passages it resembles a substantive rather than an adjective.
Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.(8) Then—i.e., after the king had addressed the wise men whom he had summoned. But why could not they read an inscription which Daniel deciphered at first sight? It has been conjectured (1) that the character was old Semitic, or one which the wise men did not know; (2) that the language of the inscription was unknown to them; (3) that the words were written in vertical columns, and the wise men endeavoured to read them horizontally. The only true explanation is to be found in the supernatural character of the inscription, and in the inspiration of Daniel. In this way God asserts Himself against the false wisdom of the heathens.
Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.(9) The terror of Belshazzar and his lords is caused by the impression that the inability of the wise men to read the inscription is the portent of some terrible calamity.
Now the queen, by reason of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banquet house: and the queen spake and said, O king, live for ever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed:(10) By reason of the words.—The noise and confusion in the banquet-hall was heard by the queen-mother in her apartments. Her respect for Daniel is evident from her language. The position which she held was one of influence, for it appears that her advice was no sooner offered than it was accepted.
There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers;(11) The spirit.—Comp. Daniel 4:8-9.
Thy father.—No blood relationship is necessarily implied by this word. It means no more than “predecessor.” (See Introd., sec. VI.)
Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation.(12) Forasmuch as.—The effect of these words is to combine the two facts mentioned in Daniel 5:11, and to make the advice at the end of this verse more forcible. “Because Daniel is a wise man, and has proved his wisdom in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, therefore send for him now.”
Dissolving of doubts.—See marginal alternative; and for an illustration comp. Records of the Past, vol. iii., p. 141.
Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry?(13) And the king spake.—The words of the queen-mother, especially her mention of the circumstance that Daniel’s name had been changed to Beltehazzar, at once recalls the whole of the circumstances to the king’s mind. That Belshazzar knew him by reputation is plain from the description given of him at the end of the verse: “which art of the children of the captivity of Judah.”
Art thou that Daniel?—He calls him by his Hebrew name, so as to avoid one which sounded so much like his own. Daniel was now nearly ninety years of age.
And now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof: but they could not shew the interpretation of the thing:(15) The thing—i.e., the whole of this miraculous transaction.
Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation.(17) Let thy gifts be to thyself.—Daniel refused the king’s offer of reward at first, but afterwards accepted it. In this way he showed his determination to speak the truth without any respect to fee, gift, or reward. (Comp. the conduct of Elisha, 2Kings 5:16; 2Kings 8:9.)
O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:(18) The most high God.—Comp. this and the three following verses with Daniel 4:16-17; Daniel 4:22-25.
And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.(21) His dwelling . . .—This is a fact supplementary to what is stated in Daniel 4.
And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;(22) Though thou knewest.—The whole history of Nebuchadnezzar was known to Belshazzar. He had not, however, learned the moral lesson conveyed by it. He was therefore doubly guilty in the sight of God, because his blasphemy was wilful.
But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:(23) Gods of silver . . .—Comp. Deuteronomy 4:28. Belshazzar had exceeded those limits of authority over Israel which he had by right of conquest. The Israelites were, indeed, his subjects, but he had no right to blaspheme their God. For similar instances of men exceeding the limits of their authority while acting as ministers of God’s chastisement, see Isaiah 10:5-18; Jeremiah 51:20-25; Hosea 14, 5.
Not glorified—i.e., dishonoured.
Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.(24) Then.—Not only “at that time,” but also “because of this.” Daniel here expressly designates the writing as something proceeding from God.
And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.(25) Mene . . .—It should be remarked that the word Mene, which occurs twice in the inscription, is found only once in the interpretation, and that the “Medes” who are mentioned in the interpretation are not spoken of in the inscription. Hence it has been conjectured that the second Mene was originally Madai, or Media. This, though it appears plausible, has no external support. The word Mene, “numbered,” is repeated twice for the sake of emphasis. The days of Babylon are numbered; it is God Himself who has numbered them. “Mene” is used in the double sense of “numbering” and “bringing to an end.” Similarly, “Tekel” implies both the act of “weighing” and the fact of “being light.” The “u” in Upharsin is the conjunction “and,” while pharsin, or, rather, parsin, is the plural of peres, a noun which implies “divisions” and also Persians. It appears from Daniel 5:28 that the divided empire of Babylon and the Medo-Persian empire are signified.
And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.(31) Darius the Median.—Note the LXX. variation: “And Artaxerxes of the Medes took the kingdom, and Darius, full of days and glorious in old age.” (See Excursus D.)
Took—i.e., received it from the hands of a conqueror. (Comp. Daniel 9:1, where Darius is said to have been “made king over the realm of the Chaldeans.”)
EXCURSUS D: DARIUS THE MEDE (Daniel 5:31).
It appears from the account given by Daniel that Darius the Mede was the sovereign appointed to rule over Babylonia after the death of Belshazzar. Cyrus, after the capture of Babylon, appointed a man named Gubaru (Gobryas) as his governor at Babylon. Can he and Darius the Mede be the same person? It is impossible to identify Darius with any personage mentioned in profane history, and hitherto no traces of any such name have been found in Babylonian inscriptions belonging to this period. Till time or circumstances shall give further information, we must maintain that a book like Daniel’s, which is correct on many minor points, cannot fail to be accurate upon the subject of Darius.
Difficulties were experienced at a very early time in reference to this subject. The LXX., assuming that Ahasuerus (Daniel 9:1) was Xerxes, identified him with Artaxerxes. The opinion of Josephus is that Darius (Antt. x. 11, § 4) and his kinsman Cyrus destroyed the supremacy of Babylon; and at the fall of the capital, this Darius, son of Astyages, took Daniel with him to Media, and placed him in an exalted situation. St. Jerome agrees to this relationship between Cyrus and Darius. St. Ephraim is silent; but Theodoret goes further, and identifies Darius with Cyaxares, son of Astyages. In modern times the identity of Darius with Cyaxares II. has been strongly maintained, though without paying sufficient attention to the very slight evidence in favour of the existence of the latter. The identification of Darius with Astyages has an obvious refutation, for in B.C. 536 Astyages would have exceeded the age ascribed to Darius by Daniel (Daniel 5:31).
It is evident from history that Cyrus was the immediate conqueror of Babylon, and that no Median Empire came between the Babylonian and the Persian Empires. It is also clear that Daniel regards Darius as one who “received the kingdom” (Daniel 5:31), and who “was made king” (Daniel 9:1). If the word Darius means “a maintainor,” all that is mentioned in this chapter amounts to no more than the statement that a Median governor took the kingdom.” How. ever, the use of the word (Daniel 9:1) requires the name of a person rather than an office.